Part 1: You, and a Door to Somewhere
You stand in front of a door.
That in itself is nothing remarkable. Most of everything in life happens in front of doors. Strange and ordinary things that, after a while, are neither strange nor ordinary, just markings of time. One opening leading to the next.
And there are plenty of stories to go around. It’s said that, at the crux of a great war, a general stumbled into an alleyway he was never meant to be in, soaked to his skin in alcohol and blood he didn’t realize was his, and collapsed at the foot of a door he didn’t know was there. On wet concrete, his heart beat to a stop.
When the last flutters of his muscles passed, the door creaked open and two webbed hands dragged him inside. Revived him to flushed health. After which he went on to forge a swift and decisive victory.
Years later, when his hair grew in mucous clumps, when his eyes stretched large and cloudy like milk swirling in teacups, and his skin mottled into an iridescent mosaic, the general walked to the nearest coast and kept walking – through the jagged shoreline, straight into the sea. A new existence. A debt repaid.
And so life goes.
But here’s what is ever so slightly remarkable. This is the seventh time today you stopped and stood at this particular door.
In between their swooping hills and sharp dropoffs, numbers carry secrets. One is a nod. Three may be chance. Five could be interest. But seven? Seven sits like a calling.
You rifle through a dozen explanations to give to yourself. That this is familiar territory and you know where it leads. That a piece of the door caught your eye and held it, hooked onto a long-buried memory and pulled it dripping like a rusted car from a bygone age. But the truth is, you don’t know, and that scares you a little.
You don’t know why you’re here. Only that you need to be.
As doors go, it’s the same as all the others on the street: plain and only given life by what surrounds it. Blended into shop signs warring for attention and walls caked over with posters of missing cats, missing dogs, missing people. Blurred by rain and laden with skinny hope. It sits next to a small flower shop that used to be a coin laundry – or an eye clinic, maybe a noodle place, you can’t keep track. You never even noticed it before, in the way that you never really notice doors until the moment you do.
The buzzing in your skin whispers that everything that comes next is inevitable. Wrapping your fingers around the handle. Swinging it open. Stepping past the threshold and laughing. Because the part of you that’s coiled up and expecting – a mask-donning axe-wielding killer – is almost disappointed when you see an empty hallway, warmly lit by lights unseen.
You laugh again when you start walking. Laughing because the itchy refrain of “You need to open this” has been replaced by a looping “You should go forward, just a bit more forward.” If you ever wondered how you can tell apart one intangible gut feeling from another intangible gut feeling – well, here’s how.
So you continue on.
As a chain of thoughts floods your mind – it wasn’t this long from the outside, I can’t get a signal, is it just me or is this hallway getting wider – you realize your footsteps are sounding increasingly muffled, almost like someone’s laying the path with cotton. Except you look down and it’s the same patterned floor. Stone, you think. Old and weathered unlike anything you’ve seen in the buildings around here. These are large square slabs pockmarked like the moon, many of the pieces slashed with deep lines and curves that bleed through each other in one continuous design. Some have marks. Writing. Runes, maybe. They feel…old. Older than you and the land combined. And decaying in a way that’s comfortable and out of place for a city that’s embraced speed and steel skyscrapers.
You want to stop and take a closer look but you can’t. The only way is forward.
You no longer hear your steps.
Somewhere above, a bird sings. You swivel your head but only catch the ceiling. It extends beyond your sight – a dark canopy that, if you squint, you can almost see the edges of. Answering calls echo through the walls, tinny chirps weaving together, delight into loneliness, here I am here I am here I am. They taste metallic against your tongue.
You continue on.
Maybe this is a bird sanctuary. Maybe you died somewhere between the first steps from your home and now and you’re wandering your way through purgatory. You wonder when ghosts realize they’re dead.
Your neck prickles with heat. Sweat makes second skin out of your clothes. There’s a sweet numbness growing in your mouth, an anesthetic trailed by that sticky stuff they apply to your teeth at the dentist (watermelon, mint, or strawberry? always watermelon. the strawberry clings to your buds for the rest of the day, too cloying. the mint is mint). You lick your lips to chase it away, but your tongue is too dry and you’re scraping sandpaper against sandpaper. The numbness spreads. Down, down, down, through throat, through chest.
There’s a distant slithering sound that you ignore. No point in looking when you can’t see a thing.
You continue on.
This is how you truly know you’re not alive: trees appear on the path. Not indoor plants, not realistic murals on walls, but leaves bigger than your arm and body, stacked feet to ceiling. The forever ceiling. Cotton steps now have meaning as soil replaces stone, and it’s the damp sponginess of a forest floor made alive and pungent by layers of the dead and soon-to-be. You can’t pinpoint the moment when wayward limbs and branches started leaving streaks across your face, but they’re here now. Swiping as you trudge through air that’s trying its best to drown you.
Your legs are heavy and sodden but you have to keep going.
Low rumbling laughter sounds from behind.
Like in slow motion, you see yourself turn around and freeze.
A white tiger stands on the path. A white tiger with no stripes. White not of snow, but of bone ground up and melted to fur. Not a tiger, but a thing that is wearing a tiger. None of it makes sense, but there’s a horrible certainty to it and the thoughts crawl up your neck and claw into your brain.
The creature slinks forward, each step a burbling of river stones. Glacial blue eyes pierce through you. “You’re far from where you should be,” it rumbles.
You try to shout but you can’t.
“But then, so am I.” It bares its teeth. Meant to be a smile, maybe, but there’s no warmth in it. “Perhaps you have an answer. What is the cost of a game that has no stage, no players, and yet no limit?”
You feel a sinking disappointment. You should know the answer. You should feel terrible for not knowing it. For letting this creature down. But all you do is breathe and breathe until it’s the only sound that exists.
The tiger stops an arm’s length from you. Its ears flicker. “Nothing? Pity.”